Draft series: Running backs

It seemed so easy a month ago. The Steelers needed a running back and there were two candidates worthy of the 11th pick - Steven Jackson and Kevin Jones.<p>Instead, the Steelers signed 29-year-old free agent Duce Staley and the problem, for this season at least, went away.<p> But how long can Staley remain effective? And what is the long-term projection for back-up Verron Haynes? With one spot open on the depth chart, how high should the Steelers aim for a running back in this draft?

There's little reason to believe Staley will decline any time soon. In the first eight games last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, Staley averaged 3.9 yards per carry. Over the final eight games, he averaged 5.5. In two playoff games, he averaged 6.9 yards per carry. His 13 carries and 79 yards in the second playoff game were season highs.

Staley can be expected to retain his effectiveness through at least one more season, and in case of an injury the Steelers would turn to a motivated Jerome Bettis, another back whose effectiveness increased late last season.

But Bettis is 32 and Haynes is unproven and injury-plagued as he enters his third season, so the Steelers want to add another back to their stable.

Since it's not an immediate need, they're likely to use a second-day pick, and they're more likely to take a chance on an all-around prospect than fill any kind of third-down or kick-returning need.

RIGHT GUY, RIGHT ROUND
Fifth round - Thomas Tapeh (6-1½, 245) is considered the No. 2 fullback in the draft behind Troy Fleming of Tennessee. Both are better runners than blockers, and Fleming's faster 40 ensures he'll be drafted higher. But Tapeh has better blocking potential and the Steelers have a need at back-up fullback. Tapeh can eventually become an all-around tailback because of his running and receiving skills. The native of Liberia also has a great work ethic, evidenced by his 430-pound bench and 630-pound squat.

Sixth round - Adimchinobe Echemandu (5-10¾, 226) of Cal is the only back in the last 25 games to rush for more than 100 yards (147, 4.3 avg.) against USC. He was one of the key ingredients in the upset last season. Echemandu missed the 2001 season because of academics and then missed the 2002 season because of a torn ACL from spring ball. The former sprinter gained 1,161 yards in a senior season slowed by a high ankle sprain. He also had to leave his bowl game with a fractured fibula, which has knocked him out of the post-season evaluation process thus far. Those in the Bay Area consider him the sleeper of the draft.

Seventh round - Jason Wright (5-10½, 210) of Northwestern is a converted wide receiver, so he has the hands. A kick returner, Wright brought one back 88 yards in the Motor City Bowl, so he plays faster than his 4.65 40 time. An Academic All-America, he's obviously bright. He was also Northwestern's captain. His detractors point to his 40 time and an upright running style.

THE LOCALS
The Steelers obviously know all about Brandon Miree (5-11, 230) and Lousaka Polite (5-11 5/8, 246) from Pitt. Miree is a late-round possibility because of his speed, toughness and work ethic. When healthy, he's been productive. Polite showed poor receiving and overall athletic ability at the combine. A three-time captain, Polite's character would certainly interest the Steelers very late or after the draft.

QUOTABLE
Oregon State guard Mike Kuykendall's perceptions about Pitt watching tape of then-sophomore Steven Jackson before the Insight Bowl in 2002:

"It would be like 20 years ago if you saw Metallica play in a bar somewhere and you had no idea they were going to be the biggest band in the world. Then you're watching them and you're like 'These guys are pretty good' and they turn out to be just enormous. I have a feeling that's what he's going to be."

Pitt held Jackson to 34 yards on 19 carries and won 38-13. Miree gained 133 yards on 20 carries.

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